Handicapping the SEC Basketball Tournament

With the SEC Basketball Tournament starting on Thursday in Atlanta, Phillip Marshall analyzes each team's chances of winning the event.

When the Southeastern Conference basketball tournament was revived a quarter of a century ago in Birmingham, it was not met with universal enthusiasm.

Joe B. Hall, the coach at Kentucky, was outspoken in his disdain for the idea. He said, rightfully so, that Kentucky didn't need it. Most SEC coaches said the double round-robin 18-game schedule they played was tough enough without adding a tournament at the end.

But you'd be hard-pressed to find a discouraging word now. The tournament, of course, has been a huge success. It starts again Thursday when Auburn plays Georgia at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

There are some strange elements to this year's tournament. LSU, the No. 2 seed in the West, and South Carolina, the No. 3 seed in the East, have been riddled by injuries and might be the weakest teams in the field. Certainly they are among the weakest.

Mississippi State and Kentucky are clearly the top two teams in the league, but there are a lot of good teams that could knock off either one. It should be a good tournament with lots of close games.

Handicapping the field:

Kentucky 5-2: The Wildcats finished a game behind Mississippi State in the overall standings, but this tournament isn't referred to as the "Kentucky Invitational" for nothing. The Wildcats usually come in with little to gain from winning it and win it anyway. This year, they might need to win it to get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Mississippi State 3-1: The Bulldogs have proved themselves the best team in the league over the long haul. They have the league's best player in forward Lawrence Roberts and probably the best guard in Timmy Bowers. Like Kentucky, they might need to win to get a No. 1 seed.

Florida 10-1: The Gators are talented, but they haven't played on as high a level as in recent years. Their defense has been suspect and their inside game inconsistent. But if they get hot, they can play with anybody.

Alabama 20-1: Mark Gottfried might have done his best coaching job this season. The Crimson Tide has been tested by a schedule some say is the nation's toughest. There was a five-game losing streak when guard Earnest Shelton was injured, but he returned and Alabama has been hard to beat since.

Vanderbilt 30-1: The Commodores have a truly great player in Matt Freije. They are bound for the NCAA Tournament. But they don't have the depth or the inside presence to win four straight games and claim the tournament championship.

Georgia 40-1: The Bulldogs have had a roller-coaster season, to say the least. They have two wins over Kentucky, but they also have been victimized by several blowouts. They'll have something of a homecourt advantage at the Georgia Dome

If Auburn is going to have a strong run in the tournament, guard Ian Young will need to continue his solid play as a scorer.

Auburn 50-1: The Tigers have the weapons to make a run, but their draw makes it unlikely. They'll have to deal with Georgia on Thursday. If they win, they'll face Kentucky. Chances are, when that one is over, it'll be time to go home.

Tennessee 50-1: The Vols have been good at home, woeful away from home this season. They could win a game, maybe two. They're not likely to win four.

LSU 60-1: The Bayou Bengals might get to the NCAA Tournament based on what they did early in the season. But since they lost Jaime Lloreda, they haven't been a good team. The only thing they have going for them is that they have a first-round bye. An NCAA Tournament bid once seemed assured but is now in question.

South Carolina 70-1: The Gamecocks played a weak nonconference schedule. They won a lot of close games early in the SEC season. They lost Rolando Howell and went into a tailspin. Now they've lost seven of their last 10. They have one of the better coaches in the league in Dave Odom. They might need to win a game or two to feel good on Selection Sunday.

Ole Miss 100-1: The Rebels have a couple of outstanding players in Justin Reed and Aaron Harper, but they don't have nearly enough firepower to make a four-day run.

Arkansas 100-1: Stan Heath has recruited some talented young players, but they're not ready for prime time yet.

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